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Where is democracy in Sri Lanka

heading to?

It is now time that we discuss some key factors relating to
democracy, given that the name of our country is the Democratic
Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. But, unfortunately, ours is still far
from being a true democratic state.

Democracy, which refers to the idea that people should rule

themselves, was first established in Greece in the 5th century
B.C. Henceforth, many countries, using different methods, have
experimented to govern their societies and it is today recognised
as the best form of governance.

It has been described as a system of

governance of the people, by the people and for the people, in
which the supreme power is vested with the citizens. Accordingly,
this authority is exercised by people, generally governed through
their representatives elected periodically at held free and fair
elections. Importantly, democracy means a set of principles about
individual freedom and related practices and procedures. It is
characterised by the institutionalisation of freedom. Hence, the
idea of democracy consists of rights and responsibilities for both
the government and the governed (citizens). This is the basis of
good governance.
In a democratic society, political decisions are freely made by
majority rule. But, rule by the majority is not necessarily
democratic, as no one would call a system fair or just if the
majority oppresses the minority in their name. In making political

decisions, majority rule must be coupled with guarantees of

human rights of all stakeholders irrespective of their ethnicity,
religion or political affiliation. The rights of minorities do not
depend on the goodwill of the majority. The countrys Constitution
protects the rights of all citizens through the democratic laws and
institutions. Democratic society is also characterised by
constitutional limits on government.
Citizens freedom and democracy are often used
interchangeably, but they are not the same although they are
inseparable. Freedom is the condition of having the power of selfdetermination, which emphasises the opportunity for the exercise
of ones rights, particularly basic human rights. However, in a
democratic society, the freedom to exercise individuals (or a
groups) rights cannot be unlimited, as it is limited by the freedom
to exercise the rights of other individuals (and groups) in society.
However, in Sri Lanka, the terms democracy and freedom
seem to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused too.
Politicians and others often use these titles inappropriately to
achieve various objectives driven by self-interest.
There seem to be at least two prerequisites to be recognised as a
true democratic state. First, the citizens should have the power to
govern themselves and the freedom to protect their rights, and
they should also comprehend the sense of that freedom in order
to be able to use it rightfully. Second, everyone should realise that
corruption is a major obstacle to democracy, and have a genuine
interest to contribute towards eradicating it. Undoubtedly, these
would be difficult prerequisites to fulfil as they require a paradigm
shift in the way many people in the country are used to think.
However, with a determined effort by all citizens to make a
change, they are not unachievable goals.
Citizens Freedom a main characteristic of democracy
Citizens freedom to protest is a good sign of a democratic

society. Such a society is characterised by individuals (and

groups) freedom of expression. For instance, according to the
Constitution of Sri Lanka, every citizen is entitled to the freedom
of peaceful assembly. However, it is vital that individual freedom
of expression cannot be unlimited, as it is limited by the freedom
of other individuals in society. Infringing the freedom of others in
society is unacceptable. Those who infringe on the rights of others
should remind themselves of the following: Those who deny
freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. (Abraham
In the present local context, the idea of freedom of expression (or
the opportunity to protest) seems to be misused. Such freedom
should be used in a peaceful manner and that the decision to
protest should be the last resort to solve matters (particularly of
political nature). From the societys point of view, it would be
preferable to resolve such issues amicably through negotiation.
But for various aggrieved groups, especially those politically
motivated, protest seem to be the first step in showing
Politically-motivated protests and protest rallies have become
part of the everyday life. They are usually characterised by
slogans, shouting and road blocking, with no regard to the
inconvenience caused to the non-protesting community including
bus commuters, motorists, children going home after school or
tuition classes, people returning home from work and so forth. It
would be a violation of human rights of those non-protesting
groups of citizens. It would also cause a large loss of productivity
to the country due to the time wasted on the streets. Such
activities must be against the law of the land. In a democratic
society, the government of the day has a pivotal role to play in
nurturing democracy. For instance, when the human rights of a
section of the community are violated, it is the paramount
responsibility of the government to take action to ensure the Law
and Order situation is restored. Failing to do so would be

interpreted as a weakness and the governments inability to

perform as expected. On the other hand, citizens may also have
genuine grievances or displeasure with some government
policies. On such occasions, they should be able to express their
views peacefully. The government is responsible to provide
facilities for people to have protest meetings or rallies, for
example, by earmarking suitable locations and making it widelyknown that only set places could be used for such purposes. It is
not unreasonable, however, to expect that individuals (and
groups) who break the law should face the consequences (legal
and other) of their actions. It is also possible for some sections of
the society to become aggrieved due to other reasons than
government policy (such as natural disasters). It is a duty of the
government to listen and respond to the aggrieved parties for
some reason in a positive and inclusive manner, and resolve the
issues amicably. Failing to do so might trigger protest action.
Freedom also means the ability to communicate with fellow
citizens. Language is a crucial factor, and the countrys education
system takes centre stage in removing the language barrier. For
this purpose, the government should develop appropriate policies
for the countrys schooling system to ensure all citizens have this
ability. This would have a unification effect among different ethnic
groups in the state. As the founder of the Ford Motor Company
late Henry Ford once said; Coming together is a beginning;
keeping together is progress; working together is success.
Corruption - a main obstacle to democracy
As pointed out in a recent panel discussion held in Colombo,
corruption is ingrained in the Sri Lankan society almost as a part
of the countrys culture. People from all walks of life, irrespective
of their social status, are accustomed to engage in corrupt
practices for their convenience and/or to accumulate wealth
unlawfully. The menace of corruption in the country has grown
into an epidemic proportion, and it appears to sit on an
exponential growth curve. It is a major obstacle to democracy as

it causes an individual or a group to take undue advantages at the

expense of others. Its eradication from society would require a
mammoth collective effort by the general public and many groups
such as the media, independent citizen, professionals and so
forth, in addition to the government.
People in Sri Lanka tend to blindly follow what the corrupted
people say and do. Fighting corruption could only be successful
with the involvement of all Sri Lankans for which the countrys
education system can also play a pivotal role. People need to
change their mindset and stop bribing. Freedom does not mean
license to engage in corrupt practices, even without breaking the
law. It is also important that law and justice do not mean the
same thing (law is a rule enacted and recognised as prohibiting
certain actions and enforced by the imposition of penalties,
whereas justice is just conduct).
Corruption refers to both illegal and unjust conduct which should
be eradicated from the country in order to strengthen democracy.
Furthermore, people must believe that corruption could be wiped
out. Although this sounds like a dream, it would be a dream that
could come true. It has been done in other countries, for example
the Hong Kong police force.
Various professional groups in the country have a responsibility
to uphold the standards in their respective fields so that
corruption would not thrive. However, the professions in Sri Lanka
seem to have contributed to the growth of this menace. Lawyers,
bankers and accountants are often criticised for letting set
standards lapse.
The subject of the panel discussion jointly organised by the
Colombo MBA Alumni Association and the Daily FT was Fighting
Corruption. The panel consisted of the chairpersons of the
Corruption Commission and Committee on Public Enterprises
(COPE), Cabinet Minister of the present government and

representatives from a number of professional organisations.

For example, it was pointed out during the aforesaid discussion
that the bankers believed (when they gave loans) they knew 60%
of the audits reports and accounts were misrepresentations,
falsifications and were incorrect. Banks have also been criticised
for deliberately targeting to collect drug money and filter it into
the legitimate financial system to increase their profits. Similarly,
legal and accounting professions have been criticised for
manipulating the system, which makes corruption worse in Sri
In addition, the media have also been criticised for contributing
to the growth of corruption in the country. They are expected to
be unbiased and impartial, and when they disseminate distorted
and biased information for some reason that should be exposed
so that the public wont be mislead.
If the rulers are involved in politicising the professions for taking
undue political advantages, citizens groups such as the Puravesi
Balaya should divulge it (among other things), thereby making a
positive contribution to eradicate corruption. De-politicisation of
public service is crucial as political interferences in the public
service seem to be one of the main causes of corruption. For
instance, it is vital to ensure the independence of the public
service including the judiciary, and is also crucial to empower
public officials who could identify wrongdoers including
parliamentarians and bring them to justice. Unless politicians in
all persuasions understand the weight of public expectations on
them, they run the risk of having the situation escalated.
It is obvious that the government alone cannot take full
responsibility of wiping out corruption. However, the government
should recognise that lip service only is not sufficient. At present,
the characteristic features of the governments political agenda
seem to talk about democracy and good governance on the one

hand, and continuation of some corrupt practices (irrespective of

what was promised before coming into power) on the other. The
appointment to state institutions is an area where rampant
corruption could take place. As pointed out at the same panel
discussion mentioned earlier; such a policy must recognise that
just the ability to speak in English, having a privileged family
background and education in an elite school are inadequate to
run a state institution economically, effectively and efficiently.
It would also be important to a country like Sri Lanka to bring in
international standards that would test domestic systems against
global best practices. Whether one likes it or not, in todays
globalised world, no country can afford to exist and grow in
isolation. There are greater, more pressing challenges in the
global geopolitical landscape that is changing constantly, which
ultimately shape everything domestically. Therefore, it is
important that the global context is part of the countrys national
conversation; otherwise the country will struggle to deal with
challenges that lie ahead, both locally and internationally. Lack of
understanding about the global context, which is becoming
increasingly-complex, would make us look like frogs in a well and
tend towards attempting to apply simple answers to complex
Posted by Thavam